PG&E Faces New Round of Questions Over Its Response at Outset of Dixie Fire

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The Dixie Fire burns along U.S. 395 near the Lassen County community of Milford on Aug. 17, 2021.  (Justin Sullivan/Getty Images)

Updated 1:40 p.m. Thursday, Aug. 19, 2021.

With the Dixie Fire in the sixth week of its rampage through the northern Sierra and beyond, PG&E is facing new scrutiny over its possible role in igniting the blaze.

The utility is facing a tough new round of questions from U.S. District Judge William Alsup, who is seeking new details about the company's response to a power line problem in the Feather River Canyon on July 13, the day the fire started.

As part of his inquiry, Alsup has ordered a PG&E worker who responded to the line problem and eventually discovered the beginnings of the Dixie Fire to appear at a court hearing set for Sept. 13. The judge said he will issue a subpoena to compel the worker's appearance if he does not attend voluntarily.

Alsup is overseeing PG&E's probation for criminal convictions arising from the deadly 2010 San Bruno natural gas pipeline disaster. He wants the company to more fully explain the actions of the worker, called a troubleman.

In orders issued Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday, Alsup posed dozens of questions centering on events in the first 10 hours of the fire.

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In filings submitted last month to the California Public Utilities Commission and Judge Alsup's court, PG&E reported that the first sign of problem in the area where the fire started was detected early July 13: A power outage was detected at the company's Cresta Dam, on the North Fork of the Feather River northeast of Oroville.

PG&E's filing explained that remote sensing equipment had detected a momentary surge of current on the three-conductor line at 6:48 a.m. The surge was too brief — just a few thousandths of a second — for a safety device called a recloser to trip and shut off power through the line. That meant that current continued to flow through the line in an area well known to be at high risk for wildfires as PG&E began the process of investigating the problem.

The most attention-getting detail in the company's account of its response was its admission that it took nearly 10 hours after the first sign of a problem for its troubleman to reach the site where a 70-foot Douglas-fir tree had fallen across a power line and ignited a small fire.

The worker tried unsuccessfully to extinguish the blaze, which he described as growing to about 1,200 square feet as he fought it. A fire crew that happened to be driving up the other side of the Feather River on Highway 70 had already spotted the flames and, a few minutes after 5 p.m., reported the incident to a Cal Fire dispatcher as an "established" fire measuring about 40 feet by 40 feet.

In his long list of queries, Judge Alsup asks PG&E to explain why the power line problem apparently took so long to ignite the small fire the troubleman first encountered. Noting that no one had spotted a fire before the PG&E worker arrived at the site, Alsup asked, "What, if anything, did the troubleman do upon his arrival at the site that might have accidentally caused the fire?"

Alsup's questions include a back-and-forth between the judge and PG&E over what the company knows about a drone flight that interfered with firefighters in the hours immediately following the discovery of the Dixie Fire.

Alsup ordered the company on Aug. 6 to tell him what it knows about the drone, including whether it might have been flown by a contractor. In a response filed Monday, PG&E flatly denied knowing anything about the drone flight.

But on Tuesday, Alsup posed the drone question again. The judge said he had information by way of the court monitor assigned to track PG&E's safety performance that the company might know something about the drone after all.

"The court has received information that PG&E informed the monitor of the following: PG&E believed that the drone that interfered with Dixie firefighting on July 13 was being flown by a PG&E contractor at the time of the interference," Alsup wrote. "PG&E believed that the contractor was not doing work for PG&E at the time of the interference, however, because records indicated that it had completed PG&E surveillance work for the day. Is it true that PG&E did believe that a PG&E contractor operated the drone (regardless of whether it was on behalf of PG&E or not)? What was the source of this information? Does PG&E still believe that?"

In a statement, PG&E reiterated it's "not aware of any evidence that the company or any of its contractors operated a drone anywhere near the start of the Dixie fire on July 13."

"We intend to update the court on what appears to be a misunderstanding based on early reports and preliminary information," the company said. "We will clarify this information with the court and seek to clarify all stakeholders' understanding of the facts."

The Dixie Fire has burned more than 1,050 square miles over the past 38 days, has destroyed more than 500 homes and continues to threaten communities in Lassen, Plumas and Tehama counties.